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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, February 9, 2014

9 Strange Mental Phenomena That May Support an Alternate Theory of Consciousness

In a previous post I advanced what I called a receptacle hypothesis of consciousness, the idea that our minds may come from some unknown external source, rather than being purely the product of our brains. I did not claim that such a hypothesis is a likelihood, but I suggested it as an interesting alternate hypothesis. I suggested only one thing that might be evidence tending to support such a hypothesis: the phenomenon of near-death experiences. But there may be other mental phenomena that lend support to this hypothesis or similar alternate ideas about human consciousness. Let's take a look at such phenomena. 

receptacle theory of mind

I'll start by mentioning two or three phenomena that are only weakly supportive of the receptacle hypothesis of mind, and then move up to some phenomena that may support this hypothesis more strongly.


Savants (once called “idiot savants,” although that seems an inappropriate term) are individuals who have some mental disability but also have some extraordinary mental talents. Many people are familiar with savants from the film Rain Man starring Dustin Hoffman, based on an actual savant. An example of a savant is Daniel Tammet, who has been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. He holds the European record for reciting Pi from memory, to 22,514 digits. Supposedly he learned the Icelandic language in only ten days.

Another example of a savant is the late Kim Peek, who supposedly could accurately recall the details of 12,000 books he had read, despite having an IQ of only 87. Like several savants, he had the ability to instantly calculate the day of the week on which any person he met was born.


Hyperthymesia is the rare ability of a person to remember almost everything that has ever happened to him.  25 cases have been documented in peer-reviewed journals. Hyperthymesia was the focus of a 60 Minutes segment that interviewed a group of people with this ability, including actress Marilu Henner. Henner says she can remember almost every day of her life since she was about 11 years old. In June 2012 a journal reported the case of a man identified merely as HK. The man could clearly recall every day of his life since he was about 11. The man underwent a brain scan, which showed that his brain was smaller than average.

Another person with hyperthymesia is Jill Price, who can recall details from every day in her life since she was 14. Her brain was scanned, and found to be normal. 

These cases of hyperthymesia and savants may be hard to fit in with the hypothesis that the human mind is entirely produced by the brain, as do other examples of extraordinary mental abilities.  

Brain Surgery Anomaly

Michael S. Gazzaniga is the director of the SAGE Center of the Study of Mind at the University of California. In his book Who's In Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain, he says this about a particular type of split-brain surgery:

In this procedure, the large tract of nerves that connects the two hemispheres, the corpus callosum, is severed to prevent the spread of electrical impulses. Their isolated left brain, however, which receives no input from the right hemisphere (in essence losing half its size) remains just as intelligent as a whole brain. If brain quantity is so important, you would think there would be an effect on problem solving and hypothesizing when half the brain is lost, but there is not.

This may be hard to explain under the idea that the mind is entirely the product of the brain, but it is no difficulty under the hypothesis that the brain is a mere receptacle for consciousness.

ESP or extrasensory perception is the alleged ability of some people to obtain Information in some paranormal way outside of the senses. Recently we saw headlines such as “ESP Debunked in New Psychology Study.” But the study in question did not at all do that – the study didn't even mention ESP, nor did it mention a sixth sense.

The most compelling evidence for ESP comes from what are called ganzfeld experiments. A ganzfeld experiment is one in which a test for extra-sensory perception is combined with sensory deprivation achieved through methods such as cutting a ping-pong ball in half and taping it over someone's eyes, and having someone wear an earphone transmitting white noise. In these ESP experiments, the expected chance hit rate (matching of a user's selection and a random target) is 25%. But as wikipedia reports here, “In 2010, Lance Storm, Patrizio Tressoldi, and Lorenzo Di Risio analyzed 29 ganzfeld studies from 1997 to 2008. Of the 1,498 trials, 483 produced hits, corresponding to a hit rate of 32.2%.” That success rate of 32.2% is hugely above the expected by-chance success rate of 25%. The review article can be found here. The probability of such a hit rate occurring by chance is incredibly low. The Law of Large Numbers dictates that whenever you do a huge number of trials, there is only a very low chance of exceeding the result expected by chance.

If ESP exists, it is very hard to fit in with the idea that our consciousness is entirely produced by our brains.

The Placebo Effect

A placebo is typically a sugar pill that a doctor gives to a patient, merely in the hopes that the patient's belief that he is getting an effective treatment will actually do some good. The placebo effect is the astonishing degree to which placebos are actually effective in reducing symptoms. This study indicates that half of a drug's effectiveness may be due to the placebo effect. This study indicates that when patients are given a placebo pill labeled as a drug, it does just as well in alleviating migraine headaches as when patients are given an actual drug labeled as a placebo. The placebo seems to work not just for problems involving the brain, but also other parts of the body. Wikipedia says, “A meta-study of 31 placebo-controlled trials of the gastric acid secretion inhibitor drug cimetidine in the treatment of gastric or duodenal ulcers found that placebo treatments, in many cases, were as effective as active drugs.” 

The placebo effect is very difficult to account for under the theory that your mind is entirely produced by your brain. But imagine if your whole body is a receptacle for your consciousness, which somehow arose from some unknown distant source. In that case something like the placebo effect would not be so surprising.

The Global Consciousness Project

The Global Consciousness Project is a long-running study to see whether random number generators behave differently during significant world events. The project uses random number generators scattered all over the world, and has operated for more than 15 years. The web site for the project indicates that overall the project has produced results with a probability of less than one in a million, indicating a significant deviation from the results expected by chance. It is as if somehow the human mind has an influence on computerized mechanical devices. Such an effect is hard to account for under the idea that your mind is entirely the product of your brain, but may be easier to explain under the hypothesis that your consciousness has some mysterious distant origin.

Near Death Experiences

The site here www.nderf.org gives over 1800 accounts of near death experiences, which have for several decades been the subject of serious investigation by researchers. But weren't near-death experiences debunked by some recent scientific study? No, the study involved rats, not humans, and merely showed that for 30 seconds at the time of death they had a particular type of brain wave. The conclusion that some people drew from this study (“Rats show signs of higher consciousness at death”) was quite strained, considering that we haven't the slightest idea how these rats thought or felt when they were dying, and even the very idea of talking about consciousness in rats may be rather laughable. In any case, I doubt anyone reading some of the long, involved accounts at the site above would think that most of the people were describing something that occurred in 30 seconds of time. 

In quite a few near death experiences, people report floating above their bodies, an observation which seems to be completely incompatible with the idea that the mind is produced solely by the brain.  

Alleged Ghost Sightings

People have reported seeing ghosts throughout human history. Many people would like to classify ghosts as a superstition of the past, like the belief in witches. The problem is that people keep reporting that they have seen ghosts. For example, for 5 years on the television show Celebrity Ghost Stories numerous celebrities  have gone on camera to report seeing ghosts (a list of these celebrities is found here).

Alleged Reincarnation Evidence

Reincarnation is the hypothesis that one person can be born with the soul or consciousness of another person who previously died. If all we had as evidence for reincarnation were uncorroborated stories of past-lives told during hypnotic regression, such evidence could easily be dismissed as mere fantasies produced during an abnormal mental condition. However, the evidence is a lot more substantial. After decades of research, Professor Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia published a 2268-page two volume work Reincarnation and Biology, in which he described in meticulous detail thousands of cases of alleged reincarnation, involving small children who claimed to have had a previous life. According to this link in a Scientific American blog, “Reincarnation and Biology contained 225 case reports of children who remembered previous lives and who also had physical anomalies that matched those previous lives, details that could in some cases be confirmed by the dead person’s autopsy record and photos.” Stevenson's work has been carried on by Jim Tucker, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia who has recently published a book Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children who Remember Past Lives. See this link for an interview.

Again we have a case of an alleged phenomena that is quite inconsistent with the idea that our consciousness is solely produced by the brain, but which is quite compatible with the receptacle hypothesis of consciousness.


I have cited here quite a few type of phenomena that may tend to support the theory I previously discussed, that our brains or bodies may be a mere receptacle of our minds, and that our minds may have arisen elsewhere, from some unknown external source outside of our bodies. The various phenomena discussed here may all tend to lend credibility to such a hypothesis. All of these phenomena are hard to explain under the alternate hypothesis, that the mind is produced solely by the brain. I am not claiming that all of these phenomena are necessarily what they appear to be; I am merely pointing out that they may tend to conflict with the conventional theory that our minds are produced solely  by brain activity. 

None of this proves that this receptacle hypothesis of consciousness is true, but at least these items may indicate that such a theory should be given serious consideration.

No doubt some will denounce some of these items I have cited as things that are too “weird” or far-out. But I think it is remarkable that a scientist who might make such a dismissal might then later proceed to spend lots of time writing about multiverses, parallel universes, string theory, time travel, distant extraterrestrial civilizations, and space-time wormholes – all of which are things just as strange (or stranger) than any of the items I have mentioned here.

In fact, there seems to be a very strange double standard in the minds of many a modern scientist. You might describe this double standard like this:

It is acceptable and encouraged to discuss multiverses, parallel universes, distant extraterrestrial civilizations, time travel, string theory, and space-time wormholes, things for which there is no observational evidence. But it is forbidden to discuss things like ESP, ghosts, and near-death experiences, which seem to be supported by many observations.

Such an ass-backwards principle makes no sense at all.

Postscript: for a discussion of other strange phenomena that may support an alternate hypothesis of consciousness, see this post. Among the cases discussed are two astonishing cases of people who managed to function well despite having hardly any brain tissue.  

Post-postscript: For other fascinating cases of savants, see this link.